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First Digital Free Trade Area in Africa set for Rollout in 2018 (Contd))

Exporters from Uganda say this is a breakthrough in regional and international trade, even though it comes with new risks and challenges, especially member states that have not yet provided for e-CO laws.

"The risks are there but they can be mitigated. There must be software to prove that the electronic certificate of origin is authentic so that tax authorities can read it," says Chris Kaijuka, the managing director of grain exporting company AfroKai Ltd.

Mr Kaijuka welcomes the innovation but adds that he is keen to test the effectiveness of the electronic certificate of origin in solving some of the import-export hitches that traders face in the market.

Diminished role for banks?
The financial services sector for counterparties makes easy money in international trade deals -- globally totaling to $100 trillion -- because the importing party in most cases does not know or trust the exporting company.

Within the Comesa region alone, some $450 million is paid to commercial banks annually to confirm letters of credit.

But the bloc's chief executive argues that soon this will be a thing of the past because the Comesa digital FTA has "applications that can connect Customs, commercial banks, ministries of finance and central banks in real time, even when it comes to remittances."

"Let's say you are an exporter from Zambia and you are exporting to Egypt, it will be accounted for because all these parties will be able to access that information simultaneously and this is through the block chain application," says Mr Ngwenya.

But a source at KCB Bank Uganda -- one of the largest providers of trade finance -- told The EastAfrican that it is too early for these innovations to reduce the role of commercial banks to the periphery in international trade.

Enabling laws
In 2014, the Comesa Council of Ministers decided that member states that were ready to accept and use the e-CO should do so by July 31 of that year.

The Council further directed member states whose legal systems did not provide for e-COs to enact enabling laws as soon as possible with the view to replace the manual certificates of origin with the electronic certificates in a bid to speed up the process of certification and facilitate trade in real time.

The Council also wanted the designed digital applications to ensure that they integrate small and medium enterprises - which make up over 90 per cent of the employment base in Comesa for its 492 million citizens, according to the bloc's data.

The question for AUC now is, why wouldn’t this initiative be the whole Africa?